Mahatma Gandhi and the Contentious Issue of Languages in India

Dipak Malik

(Emeritus Director of the Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi, India)

Prof. Dipak Malik delivers a lecture to the students of Hindi at the University of Athens. December 1, 2017.

Mahatma Gandhi was the first person in India’s freedom struggle who raised the question of a language for a nation striving for independence from Colonial rule. This vital question simply skirted almost all pre-Gandhi leaders as they were mostly part of the English educated elite particularly well-heeled Barristers, lawyers and gentlemen and women of substance. Gandhi paraphrased the question: How can a dumb nation not having its own language demand freedom from the shackles of an alien regime. He was perceptive about it and raised this question in his magnum opus ‘Hind Swaraj’ right in 1909. By the time he was writing Hind Swaraj he had a fair idea as to how to address substantial questions of Indian community in South Africa. Mahatma was a Diaspora Indian with 21 years of stay in South Africa. According to Dr Fren Ginwala The Indian Diaspora community in South Africa was a mini India. Almost 2/3 rd community were populated by South Indians whose languages were Tamil, Telugu and a small sprinkling of Malayali speakers. Only one-third of the population were Hindi speaking. A small stream of traders had landed in South Africa mainly to provide provisions for the sprawling Indian indentured labour community. The first ship which brought the indentured labours from India had following break up caste wise: Brahmins 2%, Kshatriya 9%, Vaishya 21% ( including both the free settlers and indentured labour), Shudra 31%, 27% Scheduled castes (at that time they were simply categorised as untouchables, their situation changed after the 1932 Poona Pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar), 3% Christians and 4% Muslims (This percentage increased later on when a larger number of North Indian labouring class started moving in).

It is worth noting that though the number of Hindi speaking population was hardly 1/3 rd amongst the indentured labour diaspora community which was overwhelmingly non-Hindi, yet they adopted a dialect of Hindi( Bhojpuri a variant of Hindi spoken in Eastern part of Uttar Pradesh) as the lingua franca amongst them. Though there was a small stream of Gujrati merchants whose language was basically Gujrati-Kathiawari, one of Indo-the European group of languages, yet they were too not disinclined to accept Hindustani as the lingua franca amongst the diaspora community. Gandhi was patronised and lionised by this community being a Gujrati Kathiawari native speaker as he had come to South Africa to primarily monitor and assist the legal problems of his client Dada Abdullah and company. Dada Abdullah himself was a rich Gujrati Kathiawari businessman. It must be noted that the only Hindi or Hindustani speaking minority in Western India and more so in South India are largely Muslims who used Hindustani as their standard tongue other than their mother tongue which was largely Gujrati of Kathiawari variety. This perhaps became the very template for Mahatma’s espousal for Hindi which in fact at that moment in India and in diaspora was just another name for spoken Hindustani in fact. Mahatma was perhaps convinced that if Muslims right from south to north can adopt Hindi or Hindustani as their standard tongue and Diaspora conditions induced the overwhelmingly non-Hindi speaking majority to readily accepts one dialect variant of Hindi or Hindustani as their sole lingua franca then why this experiment can’t be repeated in mainland India. This conjuncture or speculation can’t be completely ruled out. Of course, this needs further in-depth research.

As a matter of fact, this play of languages in South African diaspora constructed Mahatma’s view on Indian languages. Besides it equipped him as a pilgrim on the path of truth, a votary of non-violence and the unique profile of a life long ‘Satyagraha’ (Sticking to the truth and continuous struggle personally as well collectively to reach the very destination of the truth). But he had to experiment with the truth in a society which was handicapped by a hierarchical caste structure and deep psychological division lines drawn by history between Hindus and Muslims as well a tragically deeply entrenched feudal society which got further accentuated by the Colonial rule with a strong veneer of Apartheid.

The quest for a language for the dumb and weak starts taking root from here. Gandhi had his first lessons which made him a life long votary of Hindustani which was neither heavily Sanskritised nor heavily Persianised. He also picked up some sort of simplified Hindustani that could qualify as an eligible candidate for lingua franca in India. English was alien and incomprehensible for the overwhelming majority of Indians, save a thin layer of English educated newly emerging middle class. Mahatma comments very aptly in his presidential speech in the 8th Hindi Sahitya Sammelan held in Indore (1918): “I have often said that Hindi is that language which is spoken in the North by both Hindus and Muslims, which is written in either Nagari or Persianised script. this Hindi is neither too Sanskritised nor too Persianised. The sweetness which I find in the village Hindi is neither found in that of Hindu Pandits of Prayag nor in the Urdu speaking gentry from Lucknow. The language that is easily understood by the masses is best, All can follow ‘Village Hindi’”.

After return from South Africa Gandhi campaigned for Hindi and put it as one of major agenda of freedom struggle, whereas the other leaders who had at that time much higher status than Gandhi did not find it important enough to include in the main agenda of freedom struggle with exception of Pundit Madan Mohan Malviya but he too did not emphasise on using Hindi in the Congress sessions. In one of the first occasion when Gandhi expressed his anguish of not being permitted to speak in Hindi, he emphasised “Our language is the reflexion of ourselves” the complementary sentence was even more hard-hitting when he questioned “and if you tell me that our languages are too poor to express the best thought, then I say that the sooner we are wiped out of our existence, the better for us”. This was his vociferous posture that without a language of Indian extraction there was no possibility of a liberation struggle from the Colonial rule as well Colonial culture. He had already made up his mind to insert the question of national language in the agenda of freedom struggle if not wholly then at least replacement of English by a native language agreed consensually. The inauguration function of Banaras Hindu University was a ceremony where almost all major Hindu Kings and the Business leaders of Hindu extraction came to attend, as was the custom those days for the native Kings to make beeline wherever the Viceroy makes an appearance, the then Viceroy Lord Hardinge was invited to inaugurate the university. It was not surprising that Gandhi was literally stopped from speaking when he expressed his grief of being compelled to speak in English instead of an Indian language and was loud about the big Police arrangement for the Viceroy. He was very critical of the assembled Hindu royalties too as they were too keen to show their wealth which was actually built on usurious practices, tax collection from the extremely poor subjects of their kingdoms, ‘Begar’ a practice of non payment to the poor peasantry against their labour and various kind of cess imposed on the subjects even for buying very expensive Rolls Royce cars by the Maharajas. Servility to the British rule and exploitation of the poor peasant subjects irked Gandhi who was till then an anonymous figure in the national map.

By 1917, he was invited to the second Gujarat Educational conference in Bharuch, where he again raised the question of a national language. He proposed eligibility criteria for a language for governance in India. He said that the language should be such that officials on all levels can learn quickly, it should be the speech of majority, should have the capability of building up a vocabulary of official transactions, it should not be opposed by other Indian languages. Gandhi concluded that English does not fulfil the qualification to be the sole language for official and non-official transactions. This puts him up on the long journey in search for a lingua franca in India as well as in post-independence India. But he was emphatic from the very beginning: “If we are to make good our claim as one nation we must have …a common language not in supersession of the vernaculars, but in addition to them”.

Gandhi’s project of installing a national language i.e. Rastrabhasa was primarily an attempt to valorise Indian nationalism in a country which was under hegemony of English language and colonial rule. He was influenced by experience of his South African days where he could see that the Hindustani of a sort had developed amongst particularly the indentured labour majority of whom were non-Hindi speaker. But it was possible this community of people were primarily the working class, distinct from the middle class, who are more conscious of the distinctive mark of language and culture. Secondly, they had communicate with Gujrati traders who spoke a sister language of Hindi for their daily requirement of ration and other essentials. So in course of Bazaar and interconnectivity a special variety of Hindustani developed as lingua franca. Gandhi tried to replicate all his experiences and moves in India. The satyagraha which became the unique instrument of freedom struggle under benign eyes of Mahatma was first used in South Africa in 1906. Similarly, the question of language also became part of Gandhian agenda based after his experience in South Africa.

The question of Rastrabhasa was, in fact, a derivative of the Indian national movement for freedom. So it was neither organic literary movement nor a livelihood movement, it was comparatively parallel to a Koine movement[1]. A Roman Catholic priest Father Bernolak chose Koine to serve as the common language of the Slovaks, but it could not take off after temporary survival in the initial period as Slovak intellectuals who found the newly crafted language too Czeck to their liking and eventually turned to their own language and separate linguistic and national identity. The Gandhian plan of installing a Rastrabhasa got spiked due to the rigidity of the Hindi lobby as well similar rigidity by the Urdu lobby. Though Gandhi was able to introduce Hindustani to be used as the transactional language in the Congress Party with the status of Rastrabhasa in 1925, partition in 1947 destroyed all the possibility of introducing Hindustani. Pakistan declared Urdu as its national language and Mahatma had underestimated the multilingual identity of India as the main theatre of national movement moved to the Hindustani speaking heartland where Gandhian politics got more currency compared to the South India which was grappling with the non-Brahmanic to anti-Brahmin movement as well the institutional liberal polity. Language issue had not come to the fore in South India during the colonial period but it came in full throttle in the decades after the freedom. The discourse of nation-building with the adoption of one language as national language a nationalistic as well as patriotic move envisaged by Mahatma with all the best intention of weaving a diverse country in one entity ironically turned into a contentious issue. Overnight it took turn into Rastrabhasa versus national integration. The discourse started by Mahatma about Hindustani as national language now shifted to regional languages and national integration. It is not for nothing that we find Mrs. Indira Gandhi echoing national integration repeatedly during this period.

Gandhi took two innovative steps as far as re-equipping the Indian perspective about national language. To start with the very idea of a national language in a multilingual country is definitely a brave step, as it was a rarer step in world history. In USA English became the lingua franca and national language in spite of the multilingual population from Europe and Africa, but the process was completely organic and more of sociological without any dirigiste. Mandarin acquired a premier position due to long Imperial dirigiste. The Post October revolution Soviet Union had also declared though only in theory status of national language to various languages but in reality. it was the Russian which dominated right from the days of the Russian Empire and Czardom. Nearer home, the newly crafted State of Pakistan declared Urdu as their national language but within four years a full fledged Bengali language movement against the imposition of Urdu as national language developed and by 1971 Pakistan disintegrated as a consequence of the imposition of Urdu as the sole national language in a largely multilingual Pakistan. The glue of religion could not save Pakistan from breaking down. One should not underestimate multilingual India from this potential danger which became obvious by 1968 almost 20 years after the death of Mahatma when Annadurai the popular Dravidian leader and chief minister of Tamilnadu threatened to secede from Indian union, Hindi was one of the questions in his conceptualisation of Dravid identity. It must be noted that Mahatma gave equal importance to other Indian languages besides Hindustani-Hindi, thus he wanted to build reconciliation between Hindustani and the non-Hindustani languages, this was a clean anti-colonial task in the realm of languages which got very little attention from other leaders of freedom struggle and parties. But there is no successful initiative in world history where a people’s movement has been able to forge a national language in a multilingual country.

The constituent assembly had the question of Rastrabhasa most hotly debated as a matter of fact the largest number of amendments came on this item. It was agreed upon that within 15 years Hindi will be established as the sole official language thereby meaning that it will become the link language. By seventies, the iconoclast socialist leader Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia launched ‘Angrezi Hatao Movement’ the step instead of shedding of the English language from official use it invited a vigorous counter movement which rather re-established the English language. With the coming of globalisation the little impact that Hindi had over the youth and people further receded. The latest election to Karnataka assembly saw parties demanding reestablishment of English as popular demand. The recent national convention for bringing the Indian languages to the fore held in Varanasi was a whimper. The Socialist Party, particularly after the death of Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia dissolved in thin air, it was the last bastion of Hindi. BJP having become a big party and in a race to capture South India has jettisoned Hindi.

There are some fundamental but intriguing questions besides the ups and down in a nation’s life. Is it possible in a multilingual country with rich competing as well rivalling languages and emerging middle classes from different lingual provinces to accept one of the languages playing a superior role of national language, perhaps no! The nationalism in a multilingual country need not necessarily follow the benchmark of western nation building which prescribes a national language as a priori for a nation. In a multilingual nation, it is incumbent to build up a sense of equality between the languages and harmony amongst them and a fairly long period of gestation history. As a matter of fact, such a situation was not in attendance while the attempt for anointing a national language in the constituent assembly was being made. Unlike Gandhi and Nehru the language activists were in hurry with a non-accommodative attitude and wanted to ramrod the voices of the non-Hindi regions. They were not free of the narrow limits of literary prejudices as they did not have the national vision either the perseverance with a heavy cultural baggage from the past and capacity for delving into the extremely complex task of a new nation-building, So a feeble acceptance around national language, which was worked out by Gandhi and Nehru soon lost its momentum. The other dilemma that hounds is whether the western notion of nation can at all click with the building of a plural nationalism, the answer may again be no. Arnold Toynbee famously remarked that after the First World War the growing consciousness of nationality had attached itself neither to traditional frontier nor to new geographical associations but almost exclusively to mother tongues[2]. As a matter of fact, there has not been much thought to the plural multilingual nationalism, where many languages may jostle to find their space as well the delicate question of different religions may be hovering around. The central European model of nation-states with a national language and singular religion as major narrative failed to gauge the nuances of a multiplicity of languages and religions encompassed in a territory. On the other hand instead of building up a new as well unprecedented architecture of plural multiplicity imbued nationalism, the colonial elite and the movements for freedom opted out rather for the European notion that language forms the mainstay of nation, and a singular language can only forge a nation. They did not have any formula for those territories which have a multiplicity of languages and religions. It is not surprising that Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Ram Manohar Lohia and the proponents of Hindu nationalism i.e. BJP and Sangh Parivar fell under the spell of nationalism as crafted in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe which demanded a priori a national language in its exclusive presence or as one of the languages playing the role of Prima Donna as national language

The debate launched by Edward Sayeed and the Post Colonials had not got its hold in the intellectual discourse of the times of Gandhi and Nehru. Gandhi in his Magnum Opus ‘Hind Swaraj’ was in full denunciation of the Western World, Modern Industrialisation and civilisational deficits of the Western world as well deficits affecting Indian Society. He understood very well the necessity of Hindu-Muslim unity in the context of freedom struggle to thwart the design of ‘Divide and Rule’. So he devised an accommodative yet non-western modus operandi called ‘Sarva dharma sambhav’ instead of Secular Republic. Though his conceptualisation did not get a take off due to the hegemony of British Empire in the process of transfer of power and the tension on ground created by the Muslim League as well RSS and Hindu Mahasabha as both believed firmly in two nation theory starting in 1937 by Savarkar’s address to the Mahasabha conference and Pakistan resolution adopted in the 1940 Lahore meet of the Muslim League. But the debate around National Language was very much a remnant of the brick and mortar of the Western Nation building exercise where the Western formula demanded a priori a national language. Here comes the importance of the theories evolved by post-colonials who found out that much of the anti-colonial battle demands were based on the replica of the existing Western social and state structures. A re-reading of the ‘Hind Swaraj, written in 1907 will convince one that this text is perhaps one of the earliest post-colonial text ever to appear. An Edward Sayeedian re-reading of ‘Hind Swaraj’ will also clear the cobweb of borrowed colonial thinking which was uncritically taken by many of the anti-colonial fighters of the day. The imperial world system and the Western world is systematically deconstructed in ‘Hind Swaraj’. Gandhi was in search of alternative and Indian freedom struggle became his experimental ground. It would be futile to assess Gandhi in light of some of his initiatives. He has broad comprehensive footprints, We have to see Gandhi from that corner, He had almost a mystical and spiritual appeal which disarms even the bitterest of critic from the hostile ideological camp. Rastrabhasa was needed to fight the alien rule, it was the demand of the day when the whole of India had sunk deep in the morass of the hegemony of colonial rule in all aspects of life including the language but the post-independence scenario changed substantially. Though 1937 provincial elections had already changed the dice, Gandhi’s Ahimsa and Truth and the instrumentality of Satyagraha and Nehru’s vision of socialism of course, baked very much in the fire of Indian independence struggle sans the hypothetical Bolshevism flaunted by the communists. It could not from the very initiation reconcile with the antics and the indispensable vulnerabilities that parliamentary democracy begets particularly in a deeply caste entrenched, communally alive poor society with inbuilt inequalities of capitalism as well as the traditional mores of Hindu and Muslim societies. Pandora’s box had spilled the beans already in years to come it was bound to be more and more inscrutable and difficult to manage. The question of Rastrabhasa was now in the middle of the formation of the new classes, burgeoning profile of the provincial middle classes and the newer paradigm of the provincial politics where the question of competing for provincial logo languages started becoming the logo of the essential identity pushing the Rastrabhasa to an obscure corner except in some enclaves of Hindi heartland particularly ignited by the Angrezi hatao movement launched by Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia the Socialist firebrand crusader.


[1] Peter Brock, Mahatma Gandhi as a Linguistic Nationalist, Mayur Publications: Bhubaneswar, 2005, p. 61.

[2] Iliyas Husain, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Politics of National Language (c. 1937-50), NMML Occasional Paper: History and Society, New Series 51, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library: New Delhi, 2014, pp. 26-27.